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Swords and Shields: F-35 beats Russians

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by Ariel Cohen
Washington (UPI) Jan 14, 2009
Russia lags behind the United States in aerospace research and development. It has yet to produce decent competitors to America's two new, fifth-generation fighter jets, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter and the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor.

The main Russian rivals to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightnings are the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-35 (NATO designation Fulcrum F) and the Sukhoi Su-35 (NATO designation Flanker). The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-35 is an upgrade of the MiG-29M/M2 and the MiG-29OVT. Both are fourth-generation jets.

The Russian government has been eagerly selling the Sukhoi fighter jets to its friends, so these aircraft are likely to be found in areas where the potential for conflict is greatest, while financing development of the fifth-generation fighter from these export revenues.

Russian analysts like to note that the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning JSF, with a maximum speed of only 1,200 mph, is slower than both the Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker -- maximum speed 1,680 mph -- and the MiG-35 Fulcrum -- maximum speed 1,587 mph. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning's range of 1,320 miles is below the Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker's range of 2,260 miles as well.

While these measures make the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter seem inferior, they are actually fully consistent with its projected mission: F-35s are designed to operate in tandem with Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptors, which would clear the way for F-35s in real combat.

Moreover, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning JSF's reported service ceiling of around 57,000 feet is superior to the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-35 Fulcrum's 56,000 feet and the Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker's 55,000 feet. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning JSF also claims a significant advantage in maneuverability because of its smaller size, advanced materials and lightweight construction.

On the record, Russian defense officials insist their Sukhoi and Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG fighters can stand up to their American rivals. But a Russian Defense Ministry expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told that Russia "patches" its fourth-generation modifications to extend their lifespan, while most of its fifth-generation fighter program has largely remained on paper.

In fact, statistics are only the broadest indicators of an aircraft's performance. Combat performance analysis includes maneuverability, stealth, tactics, training, avionics, situation awareness, weapons, countermeasures, interoperability and supportability as major factors.

Stealth is a major discriminator between a 5G fighter like the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter and "Gen 4 plus plus" competitors like the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-35 Fulcrum and the Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker that are essentially modernizations of their respective progenitors, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 and the Sukhoi Su-27. No operational Soviet or Russian stealth aircraft has ever been reported to have entered service.

A U.S. analyst who requested anonymity said that while the Russians have some good specific system technologies, their ability to effectively integrate them often lags behind that of the West, and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter takes integration of off-board intelligence to a step well beyond proven Russian capabilities.

"From the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union until crude oil prices recently rose to $100 per barrel, the ability of Russian aircraft designers to transition their advanced scientific knowledge through RDT&E (research, development, test and evaluation) into production-ready systems has been restricted, with funding available almost solely from sales of its legacy 4th Gen MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters to other countries," the analyst said.

With oil prices collapsing, the challenges of serial production of advanced aerospace weapons systems remains, while the Russian highly skilled military space and aviation industry labor force is pushing 60 -- beyond the life expectancy of an average Russian male.

Sukhoi Su-30 fighters bought by China and India were more advanced than those in Russian air force service, which were procured only in small quantities. Progress in completing the production development of the PAK-FA T-50, Russia's first 5G fighter design, remains dependent on Indian funding.

While notable improvements have been made in the reliability and supportability of Russian aircraft systems, they still fall far short of Western standards. This is particularly true of aircraft engines.

Russia has a long way to go to catch up with the United States in the prestigious new generation fighter competition. Only domestic politics, such as in Europe; declining economic fortunes of potential partners; and high production costs of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter may slow down its triumphant march.

(Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy security at the Catherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation).

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